Dragon is kidnapped by evil Duke Treve. King Weezer and 7 elderly dragons to the rescue!
| A Dotage of Dragons
Crouched in the hedge by the eel pond and veiled by the midnight darkness, two men paused, trying to peer into dragon's cave. The cave was lit by an intermittent glow. Steam rolled out of the cave as hot dragon's breath met the chill November air.
"Think he's awake, Harry?" said Claude to his brother. (later old dragon says 'your name is clawed?)
"Nah, he's snoring like a baby." Harry pulled the muzzle from the sack, and hefted it. He liked the solid feel of it, the leather braiding, the iron nostril-guards clad in silk to keep them from clanking. He knew success in this job depended on stealth. Lack of stealth could result in roasting.
"Only... do you think if he wakes up he would broil us?" said Claude, the more timid of the brothers.
"Nah. He's real tame. Lets the kiddies slide down his back and all. Stop stalling." Harry led the way.
In the cave the only light came from a flicker of flame issuing from the dragon's nostrils on the exhale. Against his breast he clutched with his right front claw, even in sleep, Mr. Scaley, his stuffed toy lizard.
Working fast - the two men had practiced until their moves were perfect - they had Dragon muzzled and a leashed collar studded with inward-facing spikes around his neck before he'd woken up. The dragon stirred, and cracked an eyelid open, revealing an emerald slit of eye.
"Listen up," Claude hissed into the dragon's ear. "You are gonna come with us, understand? And any trouble you are gonna get this." He gave the leash a vicious tug. Iron spikes dug into the dragon's sensitive neck skin. "And, what's more, them two kids - the one's that are your keepers? Them little innocents asleep in the next cave that are easy targets for my knife? They're gonna be sorry they were ever born if you make one - little - peep."
Dragon snarled. He started to form a flame in his nostrils but the nostril-guards sent the flame back onto his muzzle.
A smell like burning tin, the smell dragon scales make when they're scorched hung in the air, and the dragon's eyes watered with pain. Harry laughed. "I don't think he's going to do that again," he told his brother.
The two men hauled on the leash, forcing the dragon to choose between coming with them or be impaled by the collar spikes. The dragon lumbered after the men. They traveled down the hillside to the westward road. A wagon was waiting, hitched to a team of eight pawing, wild-eyed horses. Horses don't much like dragons. They'd heard stories.
Other men were waiting with hooks and nets to manage the dragon's thrashing tail and heaving roiling body. Dragon was tethered by neck, legs and tail to the wagon's bed. A man threw a bundle in beside Dragon. He caught the scent of Boy. Harry leaned over the rail.
"That's, right, dragon. We got your little pal. One wrong move from you and fffft - the kid gets it." Men threw a tarp over the dragon and with a lurch they started down the road through The Great Plain toward the kingdom of Slapp.
The dragon lifted his head as far as he could against the tether and uttered a wail from deep in his throat. Each dragon has such a cry, as the hump backed whale has a call of 2000 decibels that go out hundreds of miles to other whales, dragons have the same thing only in negative decibles, inaudible to the human ear, and unique to each dragon so that his relatives can recognize it.
Harry, who was in the wagon with Dragon, yanked on the leash. "Behave!" he barked. He had no idea the dragon had sent out a distress call, he was just an evil little man who saw a dragon move, and it gave him a feeling of power to bully it.
But the call had gone out, and had reached even to the range of mountains that divided the continent of Pother. On the north side of the mountains was The Wilds, and on their south side were the kingdoms of Ohcrud, Slapp, Muldew and Thallow, as well as the desert known as the Barren Crescent. And to this mountain range, even to the highest mountain, Dragon's wail echoed for any dragon's ear to hear.
* * *
In a nest of stones on the highest mountain, runes carved into the stone face of the mountain read 'The Dotage' and underneath: 'Eyrie for Aged Dragons'. A herd of elderly dragons is called a 'dotage'. These were, apart from Dragon, the only dragons on Pother. Years ago, when Dragon was barely hatched, his parents had flown off to the legendary 'Dragon Island' and had never been seen since, leaving dragon as the only young dragon on Pother. All these dragons were at least 800 years old.
Seven venerable dragons lay curled up, nose-to-tail, sleeping or trying to sleep. Dragons tend to be wakeful when they are old and feel the cold of night, the ache of joints. A faded green dragon dame was lying awake, a bowl of eel broth ready at claw in case she got peckish in the night. A vibration carried on the breeze made her neck-ruff stand on end. "Hsst!" she hissed to the dragon across from her, a large drake with blue scales so dark as to be almost black. "Batwing! Are you awake."
The dark blue dragon snorted and lifted his head. "I am now. What is it, Nanna?"
"I just heard the distress wail of my son's son. I've got to find out what's happened. I must leave. Now." She was distressed, turning around and round, looking for her purse. A dragon dame never goes anywhere without her purse. They always have quite a bit of stuff to carry with them. Claw-trimmers, loose coinage, maps and sundries. The average dragon-purse weighs about 30 pounds and can be used as a weapon in a pinch.
"Just a moment," said the dark dragon. He got ponderously to his feet. At one time he was known as Batwing the Terrible and had been fearsome and mighty. Now his belly skin hung loosely to his feet and he walked with a bow-legged shuffle. He lead Nanna down stone slabs that formed a sort of stairway to a grotto. In retirement he had become an inventor, and this shallow cave was where he puttered with an array of gadgets to make the aged dragons' lives easier. Wing enhancers, fang implants, that sort of thing. He rummaged around with a front claw, feeling about the shelves. "No, that's an eel broth strainer," he threw aside an item that looked like a fireplace grate. "Ah ha! Here we are." He drew out several large sea shells, each sealed with lacquer. "I have filled these with hydrogen-plus. H2, I call it. As we age," he folded his fore-arms and posed as if ready to launch into a scientific dissertation, "as we age our bodies produce less of H2, thus impeding our ability to fly and dampening our flame -"
"Um. I'm in a hurry, Batwing," said Nanna nervously, "I don't know what could be happening this minute to my little Dragon."
"Of course, of course." He proffered a bag of the shells to her. "You'd better take these, old girl. And may I escort you?" He slung a leather bag of shells over his neck.
As she stuffed H2 shells into her purse she said "Oh, you have your own purse."
"It's a man-bag," he said quickly. "Or a drake-bag, if you prefer. Definitely a masculine type of thing." He puffed out his withered chest.
She regarded him with gratitude shining in her faded green eyes. "Anyhow, Thank you for these and for coming with me. You're a real gentle-dragon. No matter what others may say."
* * *
Jolene awoke with the feeling something was wrong. She removed her ear-muffs, followed by the special dragon-snore-proof earplugs. Silence.
"Wilmot! Dragon!" she called. Nothing. The caves were empty. Outside by the eel pond she found water splashed around. An eel lay wriggling on the stoney ground. She took a stick and twitched it back into the water. She followed a trail of wet footsteps to the base of the mountain.
When she saw evidence of a struggle - broken trees, stones scored with dragon claw marks - she knew something was terribly wrong. And when she saw the wagon wheel ruts she knew something was terribly terribly wrong. And when she saw Mr. Scaley lying trampled on the slushy ground she knew it was beyond terrible terrible terrible - it was - what was the word? Oh yes. Calamity.
She borrowed a horse from the woodcutters who lived nearby and rode to the castle to give the alarm. Dragon was gone.
* * *
It was early in the morning and the whole castle was awake. King Weezer made sure everyone was in the same state of agitation as he was. He was in the main courtyard with Jolene and his wife, Queen Mothilde. The queen was a large lady, mother of the six royal children and possessed a forceful personality.
The king was flummoxed. Dragon had never been missing before. Someone pointed to the sky. "Dragon!" came the cry. The king was flooded with relief. "And, er... he's brought a friend," and as the two dragons in the sky flew closer, "and er... changed color? And become sort of wrinkled?" It was apparent now that neither of the two dragons was his dragon.
The two dragons landed, and waddled toward the royals. A herald, whose job it was to announce visitors, intercepted them hurriedly. "Um. What name should I say?"
The dragon's grandmother snorted. "Well! Of all the nerve, you blathering lack-wit. The time was, when I brought my baby grandson here, I was welcome."
Realization dawned on the herald. Clearing his throat importantly he announced "The Draaaagon's Graaaandmothah!"
"Oh, has my mother-in-law come?" chortled the king. The queen glared at him. "Just a little joke, my love. Heh heh."
Meanwhile the herald, after a whispered consultation with the dark blue dragon announced: "Aaaand Baaaatwing The Terrrrible!"
The two elderly dragons approached the king. "My grandson has been abducted," said the silvery-green old dragon dame. "Fetch him back at once! Oh, the horror of it." Her eyes were brimming with tears.
"We will do our best, er - madam -"
"Call me Nanna. Everyone does."
"We will do our best, madam - er Nanna. But we don't know where he is."
* * *
The wagon stopped and the tarp was thrown off. Dragon found himself on a plaza in front of a fountain. Water gushed from it into a pool. Steam rose from it and poured out clouds of vapor. Beyond that a many-turreted, black stone castle loomed. He had seen this place from the air on some of his more far-ranging flights, and knew it to be the kingdom of Slapp. The place had a bad reputation.
A thin man wearing a black leather cloak bedecked with steel chains and a narrow crown of silver approached the dragon. He had a long, thin, black mustache that he constantly combed with black-nailed fingers. There was something off about his get-up. It was too dark, tried too hard to be intimidating. It struck dragon: underneath it all the man had a rabbity look - that is what he was trying to cover up. He tilted his head, regarding the dragon with eyes like two shiny black pebbles rimmed with black liner. "Ah, Dragon," said the man, "welcome to my kingdom. I am Treve, Grand Duke of Muldew."
"I've hud of oo." said the dragon.
The duke snapped his fingers and Harry removed the muzzle.
"I've heard of you," said the dragon.
"What do they call me over in Slapp? The Mad Duke? The Dark Prince?" He struck a noble pose.
"Generally 'that twit over in Muldew'."
Treve was silent a moment. An expression crawled over his face of suppressed rage. He snapped his fingers and henchman hurried over to him. "Take the children to the dungeon!" he snapped.
"Uh. We only got one. The boy." said Claude.
"What? You imbeciles! You were supposed to get the girl too!" Treve was furious for a moment, and seemed about to lash out. He glanced at the dragon, then he shrugged. "Oh well. take the boy to the away- I presume it is the boy Wilmot that you've got and not some stray urchin, you bumbling idiots?"
Claude lifted the bundle out of the wagon. Undoing the sacking, a boy of eight was revealed, trussed up. He was white faced. "Just you wait!" said Wilmot "Just you wait 'til my dad finds out about this! And my sister Jolene. When she finds out you've stolen me and Dragon she'll make you pay!"
Treve ignored the boy. addressed Dragon as his henchman dealt with the struggling boy. "Please remember, Dragon, that you are a guest here." He snapped his fingers and lackeys removed the shackles tethering Dragon to the wagon bed.
Dragon stretched, and lumbered off the wagon. His eyes flashed. How he would love to fricassee the horrid little duke but dare not while the boy was held hostage. "Guest! More like prisoner!" growled Dragon.
"Not at all, Dragon, not at all," oiled Treve. "You are free to leave any time you like. If you don't mind leaving the boy to our - ah - tender mercies. Heh heh"
Something slithered by Dragon's feet. He stepped back, startled.
"Ah, you've found my little pet. That is Fang. Fang is a tyrant cobra -tyrant cobras are like king cobras only meaner. There are other snakes around here of course, but none so big as Fang. I hope you don't find him too scarey."
"Actually," muttered Dragon, "I thought it was some kind of land eel. I thought he looked delicious."
"You'd better treat me with respect. Soon I will be Emperor of All. You'll want to be on the winning side."
"You're trying to win me over to your side?" said the dragon, "and you kidnap me, tie me to a cart and imprison my friend? Why didn't you just bribe me with eels or something?"
Treve hesitated. "Uhh - would that have worked?"
"'Course not. My grandmother always taught me not to take eels from strangers."
"Let me show you something," said Treve. He took the dragon to the edge of the plaza where, on a field a below, soldiers were mustered in square formations. "Behold!" cried Treve. Ten legions of trained fighting men, all at my command!"
"I thought a legion was 3,000 men."
"Well... a Roman legion, yes. But a Muldewian legion is ten men."
The one hundred soldiers stood at attention, each with a spear and shield, and wearing shin guards that went clear up to the waist (no doubt because of all the cobras.) Dragon looked soberly on the soldiers. They might not be the largest fighting force ever, but they were far more than what Slapp had. A few toothless old men who played checkers in front of the tavern on Sundays, veterans of the Coastal Pirate War fought decades ago, were all that Slapp had for an army.
"I have my soldiers," said Treve. "I have my trained snakes. And soon," he looked at Dragon, "when I have brought you around to my way of thinking... I will have you. Soon, the continent of - will be at my - I mean our- feet."
* * *
Nanna paced back and forth in the courtyard, now and then sitting on her haunches and wringing her front claws. "You don't understand!" she wailed, "Dragon is very young - and impressionable. Who know what lies that villain is telling him - and he might just come to believe them."
"What would you have us do, madam - Nanna?" said the king. "Invade Muldew? I'm afraid our army - both men - are not up to it."
"There's nothing for it but for me to go," said Nanna. "I'll be able to use the fog that twit of a duke is generating as cover."
"I'll go with you," said Jolene. A saddle was rigged up on Batwing since Nanna was too delicate to carry a rider. They set off for Muldew.
They reached Muldew Castle at dusk. The castle and all the surrounding city was wreathed in fog, just as Nanna thought. But so thick they had a hard time finding Dragon. Nanna made a dragon wail pitched for Dragon's ears and at last, by following the echoing reply calls they traced Dragon, housed in a stable by the castle's armory.
"Who... is... it?" sang out Dragon. When Jolene and the two old dragons landed at the stable entrance.
"Dragon! Don't you know your old Nanna?" cried the ancient dame dragon.
The dragons rushed at each other and their was a great deal of crying and neck twining as they greeted each other.
"But ssst! There isn't much time," said Dragon. He told them about Treve's soldiers and plans for world dominion. And about Wilmot being held captive. Jolene was adamant that she stayed behind to help Wilmot.
"Well, what do you think the chances are we wont all make fools of ourselves before this is done?" asked Batwing, as he and Nanna flew back to Slapp to report the situation to the king.
"Very low, I suppose," said Nanna. Dragons don't like to be made fools of, but understand it's a hazard of hanging around with humans.
In Slapp City they found crowds of people assembled - fisherman with gaff hooks, farmers carrying scythes and pitchforks - all sorts of people armed with whatever they could find. Word had gone out about the kidnapping of Dragon and Wilmot and the populace of Slapp was outraged. Felix and Founder, the two old soldiers, were promoted to generals by King Wentover and were organizing the troops as best they could.
Queen Mothilde rode among them on a white charger. She had a military sort of mind - her room was decorated with portraits of Queen Bodecea and every morning she used a battering ram and a lever and fulcrum device. And after she was done getting the children up and brushing battering ram slivers out of their hair she practice fencing. Oh, she was going to enjoy this alright.
The next day at dawn the king and queen and all the people who joined the make-shift army, about 200 people, set of for the 20 mile march to Muldew with cries of "Slapp Forever!" and "Save Our Dragon!" ringing in the air, at least for the first few miles, before their voices got tired.
* * *
"So alright," said Jolene. She had plans of the castle she'd purchased off a passing architect. "Wilmot is here," she jabbed her finger at a block of dungeon cells, "The cellars are here," these were parallel lines indicating tunnels, with an entrance marked at a point near the stables.
"Um," said the dragon. "I'm sure you're clever but... don't you think it's odd that you got a map of the dungeons so easy? And that an architect carrying that map was the first person you met when you stepped outside to get a look?"
Jolene shrugged. "Coincidence." She was not an introspective type.
Under the cover of darkness they headed for the trap door leading to the cellars, Jolene with her head held high and her fists clenched, ready to fight anyone who might try to stop them. Dragon slunk.
The iron-bound wooden door lifted with a large ring-shaped handle, revealing a black square hole. Jolene climbed down a wood ladder, than kicked it aside so Dragon could shove himself through the hole and then flop down to the stone floor. He had to keep his head down in the passageway until, a few yards on, the height increased slightly. Torches flickered in sconces on the wall, revealing rough hewn gray stone, and a hook holding a ring of large keys.
"Hmm," said the dragon "All that's missing is a "'Dungeon - This Way' sign with an arrow." He would have turned back except he couldn't turn around in the (to him) narrow tunnel. He had no choice but to go forward. There was a murmur of voices.
"I think I hear Wilmot!" whispered Jolene excitedly. She hurried forward and Shadrac, despite his misgivings, followed after her. They were almost to the ring of keys when sshhhk! there was the sound of stone sliding on stone. The walls moved, the ceiling disappeared and an iron cage clanged down around the dragon. His head was forced through the bars like a cow in a stanchion.